Just as art museum architecture has evolved to better display contemporary art and attract new audiences, so has museum catalog design and writing. New forms of art since the 1960s (conceptual art, assemblage, installation art, performance art, light-based works, and others) arguably need, even encourage, metacommentary and discussion to be fully understood by audiences. Catalogs still fulfill their traditional functions of making exhibits available to those who can’t attend in person; serving as documentation for future readers; and promoting the museum’s accomplishments. But they have also opened opportunities for curators and an increasingly diverse cast of additional contributors to discuss art in voices that are independent, sometimes eccentric, and even controversial or activist.
Contemporary curators are more prominent than previously, their personas more dynamic, occasionally even approaching the star power of high-profile artists. Their catalogs offer a different kind of writing—more personal, subjective, avowedly uncertain about its own judgments, leaving it up to each reader to decide ultimately what the art means. More diverse voices are included, which have equal weight with the curator’s own. Hyphenated professionals increasingly contribute: critic-poets, educator-filmmakers, art historian–novelists. The curator is no longer a distant authority but rather an easygoing host (who just happens to have a PhD in semiotics). They often organize shows not by art media (painting, sculpture) but rather by theme, addressing blind spots in prior art history scholarship: issues of class, race, sexuality, gender, the family. Even as the Internet and electronic publishing encroach, for now at least, the 21st-century art museum hard-copy catalog is an essential aspect of the total museum experience.
A browse of prior years’ Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition catalogs shows how much they’ve changed. The Biennial is the Whitney’s ongoing effort to assess the state of contemporary art in America. It has a long history as a trendsetter, showcasing the work of young and emerging artists. The show’s catalogs have consistently experimented with design, presentation, contributors, and curatorial voice in recent decades. But the early presentations (1932 through the 1960s) were straightforward, slim pamphlets, essentially checklists, offering little commentary. Curators weren’t credited until the 1970s, and the 1977 catalog was the first to feature in-depth essays. The catalogs began to be distributed by a commercial publisher only in 1987, which was also the first year of color illustrations.
In the 1980s the catalogs took the shape we know today and began to address issues beyond the immediate boundaries of the exhibition, seeking to encourage an expanded conversation about the larger world of art and society, not simply connoisseurship. An essay in the 1989 catalog, for example, explored the influence of the art market on artists and museums. The much loved (and hated) 1993 Biennial continued this trajectory by encouraging discussion of larger social and political issues prompted by the artworks. The 1993 show also moved media works (film, video) to the center of the exhibition, rather than segregating them in separate film galleries. This acknowledged that artists have been making mixed-media pieces for years, ignoring the neat boundaries established by curators. Increasingly, these media were discussed in the same context as others, rather than by film or video specialists. Later in the 1990s and early 2000s, computer-based works were introduced and the limits of the all-media approach, introduced at the 1973 Biennial, continued to expand.
By the time the 2012 catalog came along, cocurators Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders specifically discussed their interest in moving away from the institutional voice and artspeak of the traditional catalog, to try to make it an extension of the visitor experience. They did this quite successfully by inviting additional art historians and critics to contribute writing, by having the exhibition’s artists submit pieces specifically for the catalog, and by using photo layouts that transported readers into the museum space. Both the 2012 and the 2014 catalogs feel like opening a dozen websites all at once—a far cry from the simple black-and-white page layouts of years past. Which leads one to wonder if and how soon web-based documents might replace print versions entirely.
Museums have for several years been creating well-designed and informative web-based accompaniments to their shows. An electronic catalog platform could allow users to interact with curators and other museumgoers while a show is on view or even to talk to curators during initial planning. Readers could even suggest ideas and choose artists and artworks, creating a logical extension of the interactivity and diversity of voices that curators have been encouraging. We’ll have to wait till 2017 to see what innovations the Whitney will implement. [See the review of the current Whitney Biennial catalog, p. 90.—Ed.]
Michael Dashkin has worked as a Research Librarian, uncovering market trends across a broad range of industries, and has reviewed fine art books for LJ for more than 12 years. He is interested in how art museums speak to their audiences and how the experience of attending museums has evolved. Readers may contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @mdashkin